Countdown to Clearwater: Focus on Aaron Nola

Countdown to Clearwater: Focus on Aaron Nola

The Phillies begin spring training in Clearwater, Florida, on Feb. 14. Leading up to the first workout, we will take a daily look at the important issues and storylines of camp.

The start of spring training is always a time for optimism. The sun shines, the palms sway and everyone pats each other on the back and says, “Good to see ya, how was your winter?” There are no slumps, the ERAs are pristine and everyone is in first place.

And as for those nagging injuries of the previous season … well, they’re all healed.

That’s the hope, at least.

For the Phillies, there is no bigger issue coming into this camp than the health of building-block pitcher Aaron Nola, who missed the final two months of the 2016 season with a strained right elbow.

The team and the pitcher took a conservative path to recovery — rest, a PRP injection and a rehab program that stretched well into the fall months. By the conclusion of the rehab program, Nola was back up on a bullpen mound throwing pain-free. He started his wintertime throwing program around Christmas and recently proclaimed himself to be completely healthy.

That’s good news. Really good news.

But …

The truest gauge of the health of Nola’s elbow won’t come until camp begins, until he goes through the springtime progressions that all big-league starters must scale before being ready to throw 100 or more pitches in April. There will be the bullpen sessions, the throwing of live (full-speed) batting practice, the bump in intensity that comes with the start of the Grapefruit League season and finally the tests of pitching into the middle innings, raising a pitch count to close to 100 and having to bear down against a competing hitter in a game situation.

Oh, hello, Mr. Bautista.

Only when Nola clears these hurdles will we have a clearer picture of the health of his elbow.

Until then, we have the appraisals of the pitcher and those close to him, and their pre-spring insights do provide reason for optimism.

“I feel like the injury is past me,” the pitcher said recently. “I feel back to normal. My arm is all good. One-hundred percent.”

“Everything I’ve heard from last fall all the way through the present has been positive,” general manager Matt Klentak said.

While optimistic, manager Pete Mackanin remains pragmatic about Nola’s condition.

“He says he feels great,” Mackanin said. “But there’s always that concern. He had the issue, he rested it, but there was no surgery, nothing like that, so you always wonder. So therefore, I’m anxious to see how he looks in the spring, and as we get deeper into the spring hopefully he’ll have no ill effects and he’ll stay strong.

“Then you get into the season — you know, you’re always worried, especially about your starters who you rely on every fifth day. I’m going to be nervous the whole year that one day (head athletic trainer) Scott Sheridan doesn’t come into my office and say, ‘Pete, his elbow is bothering him.’ You don’t want that to happen. So, yeah, you’re always thinking about it and worrying about it.”

Of course, managers and front office men have this concern about all pitchers. The elite pitching arm is one of the most valuable commodities in pro sports — and also one of the most fragile.

Nola, 23, is a huge part of the Phillies’ present and future. The club selected him with the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft after he’d fashioned a stellar career at LSU. He ascended to the big leagues a year later and recorded a 3.12 ERA in his first 25 big-league starts before hitting a rough patch last summer.

Nola’s ERA over his last eight starts of 2016 was an unsightly 9.82. The big reason for his struggle was a loss of his pinpoint fastball command, a lifelong strength, possibly because of a slip in his mechanics. Nola’s confidence took a hit but, as a competitor, he plowed on through what many saw as a normal growing pain for a young big-league starter. Finally, on July 28 in Atlanta, he over-did. He felt something in his elbow, was diagnosed with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament and a strained flexor tendon and was shut down for the remainder of the season.

Time will tell if Nola’s health issue is indeed behind him.

If he passes all his tests in spring training, he will be in the team’s five-man rotation with Jerad Eickhoff, Jeremy Hellickson, Vince Velasquez and Clay Buchholz.

The Phillies have coverage if Nola does not pass the tests that will come these next two months in Florida. The team has built significant young starting pitching depth at the upper level of the minor leagues, led by Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson, Adam Morgan and Alec Asher, a quartet that combined to make 47 starts in the majors last season.

But it goes without saying that the Phillies prefer to have Nola in the rotation come the first week of April. It will mean that he passed all the tests that spring training brought his way and that will be really good news for a pitcher that is important to this club now and in the future.

Next: Day 3 – A look at some of the young prospects in camp

Phillies-Dodgers 5 things: Phils face resurgent Brandon McCarthy

Phillies-Dodgers 5 things: Phils face resurgent Brandon McCarthy

Phillies (11-10) at Dodgers (12-12)
9:10 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies' six-game winning streak came to an abrupt end out west Friday night. The beauty of baseball is that you have a chance to start a new streak a day later. Zach Eflin looks to avenge a poor performance from last season while the Dodgers send out veteran righty Brandon McCarthy at home.

Here are five things to know for Saturday evening's game.

1. Two strong starts for Eflin
In his second season as a big-league starter, Eflin is off to a lot better start than last year. 

If you remember his MLB debut, he gave up eight runs and retired just eight batters against a Blue Jays team that could hit the snot out of the ball … and did. Through two starts, Eflin had a 10.80 ERA and two losses to his résumé before coming into his own over the next two months.

This year has been just about the opposite. Eflin clearly looks comfortable on a major-league mound. He's turned Clay Buchholz's spot in the rotation into a positive. He's allowed just three runs and one home run in 12 innings, good for a 2.25 ERA.

The modern thinking is that an ideal pitcher strikes out a lot of batters, avoids walks and home runs, and induces weak contact. Eflin has done all but the strikeouts. His sinker has been marvelous and the Mets/Braves had little chance to do damage against it. Pete Mackanin described the sinker as a bowling ball. That just about says it all. The sinker won't induce that many swings and misses — thus the lack of strikeouts — but he can throw it in the zone and keep hitters off balance.

The Dodgers kind of ended Eflin's season last year. In reality, it was dueling knee injuries that did Eflin in (see story), but the Dodgers were the last team to take advantage of an ailing Eflin, hitting three home runs and scoring seven runs in just three innings Aug. 8. Even the outs in that game were generally line drives. Chase Utley, Yasmani Grandal and Corey Seager — all of whom could be in the lineup Saturday — took the now-23-year-old righty deep.

Being a righty against the Dodgers isn't all that advantageous as the team boasts those three hitters and Adrian Gonzalez, Andrew Toles and Cody Bellinger as lefties who can put up disruptive plate appearances. Unfortunately for the Phillies, they have a rotation full of righties and are unable to take advantage of the Dodgers' platoon issues.

2. Dodgers send out resurgent righty
The first two seasons of Brandon McCarthy's deal with the Dodgers essentially went by the wayside. Now, the 33-year-old starter is picking up where he left off in 2014.

McCarthy has long been one of the more entertaining and thoughtful players in baseball, as evidenced by his Twitter account. The veteran righty has also been a steadily average to occasionally above-average pitcher in 12 MLB seasons, bouncing around teams mostly on the west coast. He posted career-worst numbers with the Diamondbacks in the first half of 2014, but he rebounded in the second half with the Yankees, pitching to a 2.89 ERA in 90 innings despite the hitter-friendly confines of Yankee Stadium.

He parlayed that second half into a four-year, $48 million deal with the Dodgers and that was almost immediately derailed by Tommy John surgery. Going into 2017, he had thrown just 63 innings and made only 13 starts in the first half of his contract. McCarthy was one of many Dodgers pitchers on the disabled list during a 2016 with a record-setting number of injuries for the club.

But now he's apparently back to form and, perhaps most importantly, he's healthy. He's made it through four starts unscathed this year and is 3-0 with a 2.25 ERA to boot. He's allowed just 18 hits in 24 innings. Similar to Eflin, he relies primarily on a dynamic sinker that sits in the low-to-mid 90s. He also features a low 90s cutter and an 80 mph curveball, both of which grade out well this season.

Only three current Phillies have any history vs. McCarthy. With his history in the AL West with the Mariners, Michael Saunders has faced McCarthy plenty with sub-par results, going 2 for 13 with five strikeouts. Freddy Galvis is 3 for 3 off the righty while Andres Blanco is 0 for 1.

3. How does the Dodgers' bullpen stack up?
Going into Friday's action, the Dodgers' bullpen had a 3.15 collective ERA, good for eighth in all of baseball and second-best in the National League. As a whole, the crew strikes out 10.29 batters per nine innings and has the highest wins above replacement of any bullpen in baseball.

Any conversation about the Dodgers' 'pen starts with Kenley Jansen, one of the premier closers in the game today. He overwhelms hitters with a cutter many consider reminiscent of Mariano Rivera. It isn't quite up to Rivera's level, but it is still wildly effective. He has a 2.16 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 9 1/3 innings this season, locking down six saves in six chances. He dominated the Phillies on Friday night.

Setting up for him primarily is righty flamethrower Pedro Baez. Baez pitches with a dreadfully slow pace but great results, striking out batters at a similar clip and takes a 1.08 ERA into the weekend. Righty Josh Fields and lefty Grant Dayton each hadn't allowed a run this year before Fields let one up in the eighth inning Friday while lefty Luis Avilan has been effective primarily vs. lefties. 

While Chris Hatcher and Ross Stripling, both righties, each has a loss this season, they've still achieved OK results pitching often in low leverage situations. The biggest disappointment for Los Angeles has been the offseason signing of former Giants closer Sergio Romo. The 34-year-old has a 10.57 ERA through 10 appearances and has walked as many batters as he's struck out. If the Phillies get to face Romo in a big situation this weekend, it'll be a tremendous opportunity to do some damage.

4. Players to watch
Phillies: Freddy Galvis takes a 10-game hitting streak into action on Saturday night. Not only does he have good numbers off McCarthy, he's also simply off to the best start to his career. The Phillies' shortstop has traditionally been a better second half hitter but he has a career-best .269 average and .487 slugging percentage thus far.

Dodgers: While he is currently playing corner outfield, rookie Cody Bellinger is the Dodgers' first baseman of the future. Currently the No. 10 prospect in baseball, he had five home runs in Triple A Oklahoma City and is projected to have legitimate in-game power at the major league level. 

5. This and that
• The Phillies went 2-4 vs. the Dodgers last season and haven't won a series at Dodger Stadium since April 21-24, 2014, when they took three of four.

• Frequent trade partners in recent history, the Phillies and Dodgers have teamed up for eight trades since the 2012 trade deadline. Eflin himself came to the Phillies in the 2014 Jimmy Rollins trade.

• McCarthy is typically at his worst in April. He has a 5.01 ERA for March/April in his career, his worst for any month. However, he pitched well the two times he faced the Phillies. He threw eight shutout innings in 2013 and gave up two runs while striking out 12 in seven innings during the 2014 season.

Pain-free, Zach Eflin is ready to climb Dodger Stadium mound again

Pain-free, Zach Eflin is ready to climb Dodger Stadium mound again

LOS ANGELES — What Zach Eflin remembers most about his last start at Dodger Stadium isn't so much the result, it's the long walk he took up the corridor behind the dugout to the visiting clubhouse.
 
It hurt.
 
Physically.
 
Eflin lasted only three innings in that game on Aug. 8 of last season. He gave up seven hits, three of which were home runs, and seven runs before walking gingerly to the clubhouse, his night and his season over.
 
"I remember feeling pain as I walked to the trainer's room," he said Friday.
 
Eflin will be feeling no pain when he returns to the Dodger Stadium mound Saturday night. He had dealt with chronic tendinitis in his knees for years. The flare-up that affected his performance and forced him to leave the game the last time he pitched in Dodger Stadium hastened his decision to have offseason surgery — on both knees — to fix the problem.
 
"Surgery was always something off in the distance," the 23-year-old pitcher said. "But after that night, we sat down and talked about it. It was absolutely a good thing that we took care of it at that point, do it while I'm young, make sure it's a 2016 injury and not a career injury."
 
Team physician Steven Cohen performed the surgeries six weeks apart in August and September and Eflin says, "I feel completely rejuvenated. It's like night and day."
 
The surgical procedures, Eflin said, involved Cohen cutting a two-inch vertical incision over the middle of the kneecap.
 
"He cleaned out some dead tissue and little tears," Eflin said. "He drilled some holes in the kneecap, moved some stuff around and glued it all down."
 
Obviously, that's not a scientific description of the surgeries, but all that matters to Eflin is, "I feel great now."
 
Eflin got in on the ground floor of the Phillies' rebuild. He came to the Phils in the first trade that the team made after embarking on its rebuild after the 2014 season, the one that sent Jimmy Rollins to the Dodgers. Eflin was actually a San Diego Padres prospect as the trade was going down. The Phillies targeted him and got him in what was ostensibly a three-team deal. Eflin was a Dodger for about 20 minutes before joining the Phillies' organization.
 
The Phillies took it easy with Eflin out of the gate this season, giving him a little extra time to get used to his new knees. He has made two starts with the big club and given up just three runs in 12 innings. His last start was excellent — seven innings of three-hit, one-run, no-walk, three-strikeout ball in a 5-2 win over Atlanta.
 
Eflin would like to duplicate that effort as he returns to the Dodger Stadium mound Saturday night. He will be opposed by right-hander Brandon McCarthy.
 
"I'm ready to go and take care of business," he said. "I'm excited to take the mound healthy."